Public Square

How the Faith of C.S. Lewis Influenced His Views of Human Nature, Economics, and Politics

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Pete Wehner, a gifted writer, thinker, and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, recently wrote a great op-ed in the New York Times on C.S. Lewis’s approach to politics. You can read the whole piece here, but one quote in particular caught my attention. Wehner writes,

Lewis saw public matters, and indeed all of life, through a theological lens; his Christian belief had important public consequences because it provided him with insights into the human condition.

I could’t agree more. Lewis’s faith-based “insights into the human condition” are exactly why we need more “dinosaurs” like him, as I argued in Christianity Today a couple years ago. One of the political implications Lewis discerned from studying human nature was that men and women would always face the temptation to turn our destiny over to the state, a desire that often ignores the realization that some will take charge of others. These will simply be men and women, “none perfect; some greedy, cruel, and dishonest,” as Lewis wrote in “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State.” The more that people in government control our lives, the more Lewis encourages us to ask “why, this time power should not corrupt as it always has done before?”

Lewis had much more to say about progress in economics and politics in “Willing Slaves of the Welfare State,” an essay serving as a perfect example of how Lewis, as Wehner argues, “saw public matters…through a theological lens.” The title itself indicates its sobering message. Lewis encouraged progress in “increasing the goodness and happiness of individual lives.” He added, however,

Progress means movement in a desired direction, and we do not all desire the same things for our species.

As I wrote in my booklet, Free Indeed, Lewis was particularly concerned about the tendencies in the UK during WWI and WWII to give up liberty for security. He says we have grown “though apparently grudgingly, accustomed to our chains.” He warns that once government encroaches on our freedom, every concession makes it more difficult for us to retrace our steps. Perhaps the most striking quotation from this essay is the one on the nature of the happiness that he would like to see. Lewis says:

I believe a man is happier, and happy in a richer way, if he has ‘the freeborn mind.’ But I doubt whether he can have this without economic independence, which the new society is abolishing. For independence allows an education not controlled by Government; and in adult life it is the man who needs and asks nothing of Government who can criticize its acts and snap his fingers at its ideology. Read Montaigne; that’s the voice of a man with his legs under his own table, eating the mutton and turnips raised on his own land. Who will talk like that when the State is everyone’s schoolmaster and employer?

Note Lewis’s desire for political and economic freedom. This economic “independence” allows free people to eat their own “mutton and turnips.” This echoes the classic passage in Micah 4:4 where the ideal is that “each of them will sit under his vine and under his fig tree with no one to make them afraid.” The loss of freedom, according to Lewis, is deplorable.

Lewis is especially concerned about the advent of a worldwide welfare state and sees the enticement to accept it. Giving up freedom for security is a “terrible bargain” that is so tempting that,

We cannot blame men for making it. We can hardly wish them not to. Yet we can hardly bear that they should.

Despite the temptation, if people do make this bargain, the loss of freedom will lead to “total frustration” and “disastrous results, both moral and psychological.”

Lewis believes that we should be progressive if it leads to greater happiness. Sometimes, however, we need to go back in order to go forward, turning the “clock back” or doing an about-turn on the wrong road in order to find the right one. We should not be afraid of being called outdated or old-fashioned.

Sometimes we need to go full-speed astern in order to go forward. If we see that we have begun wrongly, we must start all over. In personal life, this means repentance. In public life, it means protecting our freedoms and pushing back against the power of the “welfare state,” lest we be increasingly constrained in our ability to choose what we want to do and be.

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